Will Kai Sotto play at the 2019 FIBA World Cup?
Kai Sotto carries the hopes of a nation on his shoulders as he bids to become the first ever homegrown Filipino basketball player to make it to the NBA.
But at just 17 years of age, Sotto is not yet ready to lead the senior team.
He impressed at the U19 World Cup in Heraklion Greece, June/July 2019, but it is now back in the U.S. working towards his NBA dream.
Sotto will not play at the FIBA World Cup 2019 in China, but the stars of the 'Gilas Filipinas' will play for that one Olympic qualification spot going for the highest finishing Asian team.
The Philippines' coach Yeng Guiao admitted as much to local media pre-tournament: “We will be there not just to try and make it to the next round, but also to be the best Asian team.”
It won't be easy with China and South Korea involved, but a Hachimura-led Japan have already qualified for the 2020 Games as hosts, making the passage to Tokyo clearer.
Basketball-crazy Philippines hasn't qualified for the Olympics since Munich 1972 with stellar names like Danny Florencio, Jun Papa, Bogs Adornado and Freddie Webb ringing out from that era, and now Guiao wants to be the first coach in nearly half a century to lead the Philippines back to the biggest sporting stage there is.
This World Cup 2019 roster is looking to write its name into Gilas lore too, here are the twelve players picked to wear the blue, red and white of the Filipino flag:
The World Cup takes place across eight Chinese cities and the Philippines, ranked 31st in the world, were drawn in Group D with Serbia (4), Italy (13) and Angola (39).
The Gilas will have to win two games to qualify from the group, and with both Italy and Serbia sides stacked with NBA talent - like Serbia's Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic - it'll be a tough ask.
But the 2014 World Cup in Spain proved that Filipino ballers can go toe-to-toe with the best in the business: they beat Senegal and pushed established powers Croatia, Argentina and Puerto Rico all the way in Spain, surprising many with their defiant performances.
Can they take it one step further this time around and book a ticket to Tokyo 2020 in China?
Here are six reasons for Filipino fans to believe:
1. Andray Blatche - The Philippines' 'secret weapon'
He dunks, he blocks, he feeds, he fights for rebounds, he shoots threes, he drives to the net - and sometimes all in the same play.
Andre Blatche spent nine years in the NBA with the Washington Wizards and the New Jersey Nets and now he brings all that game to the Philippines' basketball team.
Standing 2.11m (6 foot 11 inches) tall, he brings valuable height, bulk and presence to the centre/power forward positions but his attitude and aggression are just as important.
Blatche averaged 16 points, 12.4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2.1 blocks in eight games (6-2 record) during the Asian Qualifiers.
In one of those matches he scored 41 points and dominated the game, and while he is 33 now, Blatche still has a lot to offer the team on and off the court.
If the Gilas are going to get the two wins they need to get out of a difficult group, then they'll need their star man in top form.
2. Three point threat
In the modern game of basketball consistent distance shooters like Steph Curry reign supreme, and the Gilas Pilipinas boast some effective long-rangers in their ranks.
For all his power and presence, Blatche is more than capable of draining a three but they also have potential from outside the D in Gabe Norwood, Paul Lee, Troy Rosario, and young additions Robert Bollick and CJ Perez.
Quick hands creating time and space for the three-point pops will be essential, this could be an effective way to neutralise big defences and play over brick walls built under the rim.
With three-point crack Jayson Castro hanging up the jersey and Marcio Lassiter set to miss the World Cup through injury, the likes of Lee, Norwood et. al need to step up and make it count from outside the line.
3. Captain Gabe Norwood
Another injury worry was captain Gabe Norwood but he looks set to rejoin the pack with his groin injury cleared up in sufficient time to prepare for the World Cup in China.
“I actually feel a lot better. It's really just precautionary now,” Norwood said recently about his injury.
“Probably in the next day or two I'll be back in the five-on-five and I should be good to go for the tune-up games and everything else moving forward,” he added.
Norwood is a natural leader of the team, a tireless full court terror who's capable of the spectacular - like this monster dunk of the tournament over Argentina's legendary Luis Scola back in 2014.
A ten-time PBA All-Star, the 1.98m (6'6") shooting guard Norwood can do it all.
When he's not finishing plays spectacularly in offence he's doing all the unglamorous stuff at the other end, blocking, stealing, screening, making it difficult for the opposition.
Filipinos will be praying that he's fully recovered as he's the man who sets the tone for the team.
For another strong run that defies the odds the Philippines will need more than their established veterans like Blatche and Norwood, they need young blood and break-out stars.
Two names have come up in their preparations before the World Cup: Robert Bollick and CJ Perez.
Both impressed during the team's training camp stay in Spain's Guadalajara and at the 'Torneo de Malaga' where the Gilas won 3/4 games.
Bolick, 23, grabbed the attention scoring 21 points in their only loss to Congo and 19 in a victory over the Ivory Coast, collecting seven rebounds in that game too.
Perez didn't get the acclaim that Bollick did as his big performances came in tune-up games behind closed doors, he scored seven points in a convincing win over Congo, and bucketed 11 against the Ivory Coast.
The 25-year-old Perez put his name in the coach's notebook with his committed defensive work and confidence to take on big shots at key moments in the game.
Coach Guiao said he was impressed with both players in Spain:
"A lot of people saw what Robert Bollick did because those games were broadcast, televised in Malaga. But not too many people saw what CJ did in Guadalajara against these same two teams," he said.
"If they were happy with what Robert did in Malaga, they would also be happy with what CJ did in Guadalajara."
"I'm equally impressed with what these two guys did," Guiao said.
Coach backed up his praise with action too: With space for only 12 men on the roster, both made the final cut.
That faith could translate to a big performance in China right when the team needs one.
Fight, heart, guts, grit, spirit, mettle, pluck.
However you translate it, this tagalog word has come to define the Filipino basketball team on the world stage.
It became a viral hashtag during the team's big displays at the 2014 World Cup and they'll need a lot of it this time around too in China.
A team that constantly comes into tournaments wearing the underdog tag, a country that is consistently told that it's too small to play ball, Filipinos love to fight the odds and defy expectations.
The national team faces down a world of doubt every time they step on the court, and that's why it means so much when they win.
The reaction when the Philippines won the right to play with the best teams in the world in China showed just how much it meant to the players.
The fans in the streets of Manila and Davao, Quezon City and Puerto Princesa, on the islands of Cebu and Leyte, Palawan and Panay, Mindoro and Masbate, all mirrored those wild celebrations when the Gilas secured their place at the 2019 World Cup.
The game of basketball is a matter of national concern on the archipelago, even the country's President Rodrigo Duterte weighed in with his opinion before the World Cup saying they would definitely lose to Italy as they were too good and too tall:
"We will lose, we don't have a chance. Let's just bet on China," said the president.
"It doesn't bother us," was coach Guiao's reaction, "we should just keep believing in ourselves. We look at it as a challenge... whatever happens, we're here to represent the Philippines."
There will be no lack of support, in 2014 the Philippines' shouters won the Most Valuable Fans 'MVF Best Country' award.
As Ryan Songalia wrote in his powerful piece about puso in from the 2014 World Cup in the Philippine news outlet Rappler:
"Puso isn't exclusive to the players on the court."
"The Philippine fans who stayed up past midnight to cheer for the boys fighting on the other side of the planet to justify the nation's unrivaled love for basketball have puso as well.
"Many of those who stayed up late woke up on insufficient sleep – with hoarse voices and hangovers – and braved through Manila’s notoriously unforgiving traffic to make it to work on time.
"During Gilas’ inconsequential warm-up games in France, they scoured the internet for live streams of the delayed telecast games, and followed along with live tweets and stats updates when none could be found.
"But they do it because that’s their part in the Gilas experience, providing the support that sparks the team to push harder when their sore bodies can no longer propel forward, when their joints ache from banging against merciless opponents and when their lungs burn from pushing the tempo on fast break after fast break.
"There are far more pressing matters that are affecting the Philippines than the outcome of a basketball tournament. But try telling the trike driver who works a draining 12-hour shift for 400 pesos a day, and at the end of it all wants nothing more than the basketball team he supports to win that it's just a game."
6. Second chances
That kind of national passion for the game bordering on obsession is in the players' minds when they give it their all out on the court.
They understand what it means to ordinary people.
To see their team do well at the World Cup and qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics would give the kind of spontaneous moment of collective joy to a country that only sport can bring.
Serbia will be a difficult ask for the Gilas, but Italy haven't had a great warm-up to the World Cup and Angola is a must-win match if they are to progress.
Still, should the Philippines not manage to finish as the best-placed Asian team in China then all is not lost.
Seven nations - the top team in Africa, Asia and Oceania plus the top two in Europe and the Americas - will qualify for next year's Games.
But the next 16 (all the way down to 23rd place) will go through to one of four FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments next year.
So even if the Philippines don't make it through the group stage, the classification games take on a great importance of their own.
Olympic qualification may hang in the balance, and the Philippines could come up with the right mix to be present at the party in Tokyo at the 2020 Olympic Games.